The numbers were always stacked against Wales in Lyon last night but Chris Coleman’s men still return home as heroes today, albeit ultimately heroic in failure after manfully battling to defeat by one of European football’s most successful ever teams.
This was Wales appearing in a major semi-final for the first time in their history, their first tournament since 1958 undone by one of the world’s best players appearing in his seventh finals for a country that was appearing in its fifth semi-final in 16 years.
It was remarkable just to see Wales line-up here let alone match a below par Portugal team man for man as they went in goalless at half-time, leading even the most seasoned of watches to swallow Coleman’s mantra and ‘believe’ they could achieve the impossible and reach Sunday’s final.
But less than eight minutes into the second half and Ronaldo had effectively defeated them by showing he really is the man for the big occasion.
While his Real Madrid team-mate Gareth Bale threatened to overshadow hm in the first half with lung-busting runs from deep, crossing dangerously from both flanks and firing a couple of shots on goal from distance, nothing he did had the hallmark of world class that was the primary characteristic of Ronaldo’s 50th-minute header.
The way he rose and hung above defender James Chester was a joy to watch even though it almost defied belief as he appeared to climb an invisible ladder before hanging as if suspended by theatrical wires before powering his record-equalling effort into the roof of net.
Heroic failure is a concept their conqueror Ronaldo probably does not understand, but the welcome these Welsh players will surely receive when they have their homecoming ceremony in Cardiff on Friday will be as great if not greater than any adulation Ronaldo is ever likely to experience.
So many press, players, pundits and punters alike predicted Wales had done their bit just buy getting to France and their only chance of getting through the group would be through the back door of a third-place finish in their group.
But they won it, despite a defeat by England along the way, and then beat the No.2 world-ranked side Belgium to make a fool of anyone in football still brave enough to make predictions having seen Leicester City stroll to the English Premier League title last season.
And it was Portugal who needed the dubious third-placed system to get into the knockout stage after failing to in any of their opening three matches. And they still failed to convince for the first 45 minutes of this historic semi-final until Ronaldo scored and made his team-mates believe.
Ronaldo can now follow his European Cup club success with another trophy for his country in Paris this weekend, but he is 31 and unlikely to feature many more times on this stage.
For Wales, Coleman & Co, there is a feeling at the end of their run at Euro 2016 that so much more is to come.
They are now a European force to be reckoned with and it will be nor surprise if they take this, momentum into their World Cup qualifying campaign - they are in Ireland’s group - and reach another major finals when the world’s best convene in Russia in two year’s time.
They badly missed the suspended Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey last night, but he will be back and so will most if not all of these players.
The Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Iceland were leading lights at this tournament, but they were all ultimately eclipsed by Wales reaching the last four.
Wales might never reach another major semi-final or have a better chance to reach a final, but they have no reason to go home in doubt they gave it their best shot and gave their nation a reason to be proud.
Coleman got his players in a huddle on the itch afterwards, no doubt forging their team spirit fore the battles ahead.
Portugal will start as underdogs in the final but in Ronaldo they have a chance.
If the talismanic Madrid man can get his team to rise to his levels and play like a team as Wales have then they have a heavyweight punchers’ chance of pulling off an upset.
Even if they do, however, it will not rank alongside the run of this Wales side, a team coming from a nation with a population of just over three million showing they can live with and beat the best.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved